Federal Court Funding

Overview

The federal judiciary requires sufficient funds to perform the core functions assigned to it by the Constitution and Congress. These include adjudicating all cases filed in federal courts; supervising defendants awaiting trial and criminals on post-conviction release; providing representation for indigent defendants; securing jurors for jury trials; and ensuring the safety of all those who work at or enter federal court facilities. These are vast responsibilities that generate a workload over which the judiciary has no control. In 2014, over 440,000 cases were filed in district courts and courts of appeals; over one million petitions were filed in bankruptcy courts; approximately 160,000 persons were placed under pre-trial or post-conviction supervision; and representation to indigent defendants was provided under the Criminal Justice Act in approximately 225,000 criminal cases.  

Deficit Reduction and the Courts

The Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, P.L. 112-25, provided a blueprint to reduce the federal deficit by over $2 trillion by the year 2021. Unpopular and politically contentious since its passage, the act mandated across-the-board budget cuts in 2013, followed by reductions to the annual caps on discretionary spending (as well as automatic cuts to selected entitlement programs) in each year from 2014 through 2021. The law provides that failure to adhere to the budget caps in any designated year will trigger another across-the-board sequestration.

In FY 2013, sequestration reduced non-defense discretionary spending by five percent. The judiciary, like every other component of government, was subject to the mandatory sequestration, resulting in a $350 million funding cut, which constrained court operations nationwide. Throughout the year, budget negotiations continued to be contentious and resulted in a 16-day government shut-down.  

In December 2013, Congress finally resolved the budget battle temporarily by overriding the Budget Control Act and passing a two-year budget deal (P.L. 113-67) that significantly raised the discretionary spending caps for the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years. The judiciary benefitted both years.

  • In FY 2014, Congress restored the judiciary’s discretionary funding to its pre-sequestration level of $6.516 billion. 
  • In FY 2015, the judiciary received $6.7 billion in discretionary funding, a 2.8 percent increase over the prior year.

For FY 2016, Republicans concocted a plan that would allow them to adhere to the BCA budget caps and still rise defense discretionary spending without providing offsets by adding $38 billion to the Overseas Contingency Operations account, which is outside the BCA. Democrats wanted to negotiate an alternate defense reduction deal and insisted that any increase in discretionary defense spending had to be matched by an equal increase in nondefense discretionary spending.

Ultimately, congressional leaders agreed to replace the BCA spending limits with a plan to raise discretionary caps by $80 billion over two years and suspend the debt limit until March 17, 2017. The cap increase − $50 billion in 2016 and $30 billion in 2017 − was split evenly between defense and nondefense accounts, a precondition that Democrats demanded from the start.

  • In FY 2016, the judiciary was funded at $6.78 billion in discretionary funding, a 1.2 percent increase over FY 2015 funding. For the third year in a row the judiciary essentially received it full funding request.  

Additional information on the judiciary's appropriation for FY 2013 - FY 2016 is available here

FY 2017 Request: $6.99 Billion in Discretionary Funding 

On February 9, the White House transmitted the judiciary’s FY 2017 budget request of $6.99 billion in discretionary appropriations without changes, as required by law. The judiciary is proposing a budget that is $214 million − or 3.2 percent − over its FY 2016 funding level.

A breakdown of the budget request by account line is available here

Congressional Activity

Budget Plan Angst Persists

House Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell have repeatedly called for a return to “regular order” and passage of all 12 individual spending bills for FY 2017. The likelihood of that happening in large part depends on whether House Republicans continue to honor the two-year budget deal (P.L. 114-74) worked out late last year that raised discretionary caps by $80 billion over two years and suspended the debt limit until March 17, 2017. The cap increase − $50 billion in 2016 and $30 billion in 2017 − was split evenly between defense and nondefense accounts and translated into a total discretionary budget of $1.07 trillion for FY 2017 instead of $1.04 trillion, as originally mandated by the BCA.

The House Budget Committee reported a budget resolution (H. Con. Res. 125) to the House March 23, which received a lukewarm reception.  =  It would honor last year’s budget deal and promise Members an opportunity to vote on a separate package of $30 million in spending cuts over two years.  House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R- GA) and other GOP leaders continue to try to tweak the plan to attract enough Republican support for House adoption, but the likelihood of that happening is diminishing as time passes. Under a 1974 budget law, the House is allowed to consider appropriations bills on the floor even without a budget after May 15.

Republican defense hawks have suggested adding a provision requiring all spending cuts to be made to the nondefense side of the budget. Other House conservatives have indicated that they would support the higher discretionary level of spending agreed to in the budget deal if there were matching reductions in mandatory spending that were enacted before the FY 2017 discretionary spending took effect. Both plans would likely meet with stiff opposition from Senate Democrats.   

On the other side of the capitol, Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi (R-WY)  took advantage of a provision in the October budget deal  that allows him  to forego adoption of a formal FY 2017 budget.  On April 18, he released the spending toplines (known as 302(b) allocations ) under last year’s budget agreement and gave Senate appropriators the go-ahead to craft spending bills that reflect the higher budget caps. (No such provision is available to the House.)  

Appropriations Hearings Move Forward

Despite uncertainty over the budget deal, House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees continue  holding hearings and reviewing budget requests. To date, the judiciary has not been asked – and is not expecting to be asked -- to testify before either the House or Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Financial Services and General Government. The general sentiment is that the appropriators understand the fiscal needs of the judiciary and appreciate the sincere and successful efforts undertaken by the courts to constrain growth and contain costs.

Prognosis

If the budget deal negotiated last year is honored, it is reasonable to be optimistic that Congress will defer to the Judiciary’s request and provide essentially full funding for FY 2017, as it has for the past three years.

  • Key Points

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